Taking the Pain Out of Performance Appraisal (and Putting the Productivity Back Into It)

Judith Segal, PHD




Performance appraisal is a process of talking to people about how they are doing in relation to


Where the company is going, performance appraisals are useful for:


  • Increasing productivity
  • Improving communications
  • Clarifying goals and expectations
  • Measuring performance versus expectations
  • Disciplining poor performance
  • Documenting behavior leading to termination
  • Seeing how employees perceive their performance


In most organizations, performance appraisal is done after the fact. Too often, it is done only when the employee has failed to meet expectations. Instead, performance appraisal should be more future-oriented. It should be used to improve the employee’s future performance, not to blame the employee for past mistakes.


Performance appraisal is discussion with a purpose. It takes two-way participation. When performance appraisal is done well, the person being appraised does three-fourths of the talking. This requires a different mind-set for most managers because the typical performance appraisal is: “Here’s your performance appraisal. Please read it and sign it.”


Effective performance appraisal requires two things:


  1. A current, viable job description for each position.


Job descriptions must be realistic and accurate. They must clearly describe the position and list the competencies needed by the employee, the activities needed to accomplish the job, and the employee’s area of control. If you don’t have job descriptions, there are many ways to get them:

  • Hire an outside firm to come in and write them.
  • Have an employee write job descriptions for everybody.
  • Have your employees write down what they think they do and then work with them to reach agreements on the jobs.

After a job description is written, sit down with the employee and make sure you are in agreement about what he or she is supposed to be doing. Prioritize the activities and make sure the employee has the same top priorities.


  1. An anchor for the performance appraisal.


The anchor should be the company’s strategic goals for the coming year. Everyone in the organization should know what you are trying to do and how you are trying to do it. If possible, involve people in your strategic planning process so they understand the corporate goals and how you arrived at them.


Without job descriptions and a strategic plan, it’s difficult to come up with relevant performance appraisal measurements, which form the foundation of the entire performance appraisal process.





Managers tend to be directive and controlling. Effective performance appraisal requires a different approach. Instead of being a controller and a disciplinarian, you need to be a problem solver, a coach, and an obstacle remover. Performance appraisal should be a tool to help people become successful, not a disciplinary tool.


Separate performance from compensation. The goal with performance appraisals is to get employees to focus on their performance. When compensation enters the picture, the whole discussion changes. If you talk about salary first, the employee will focus on how to negotiate a larger increase. If you talk about salary last, the employee will want to zip through the performance part to get to the “important” part. Either way, the employee’s focus will not be on performance.


Instead, hold two separate discussions—one for performance and one for compensation—at least three weeks apart. Always have the performance discussion first.







A performance appraisal has three parts:


  1. Reviewing what was
  2. Assessing where you are
  3. Planning for what will be


Since performance appraisal is designed to help improve performances start by looking ahead. Begin the dialogue by saying something like:


“This is where the company is going in the next year. Let’s look at what is required from your position and what you need to do to make a significant contribution to help the company get there. Let’s be specific and set some goals. At the end of the year, if you have really done a good job, this is what you will have done and, this is how you will have done it.”


Using the job description as a guideline, make a list of goals the person needs to accomplish in the coming year. The goals should be SMART:


  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable or Attainable or Action-oriented
  • Results-oriented
  • Time-dated


After covering expectations for the coming year, talk about where the employee is in the company and where he or she wants to go. The dialogue might go like this:


“Let’s also talk about where you want to go in the company and what it will take for you to get there. Let’s see if you and I can’t build some of it into your goals so you know that you are working to move ahead.”


People can only work on so many goals at one time, so don’t get too ambitious. Identify a few key result areas and set SMART goals in those areas.


Performance appraisal is not a substitute for managing or supervising. You still have to talk to your people on a regular basis. Deal with things as they come up each day. Once a month, hold a semiformal “how’s it going?” meeting to make sure everything is on track. When appropriate, document problems, achievements, or significant performance.


There should• be no surprises in performance appraisal. Never bring up anything that you haven’t already talked about in a supervisory session. Performance appraisal sets the groundwork for what will be, checks in to see how things are going, and summarizes and plans for what will come next.

There are many different ways to do performance appraisals. Numerical rating scales are one of the most popular, but they can cause a lot of problems. Too often, you end up debating the numbers rather than discussing the employee’s performance. Unless both of you agree on the rating, it erodes trust in the relationship.


Rating forms must have two things to be useful:

  • An explanation of what each number represents
  • A description of what each rating is based on


Rating scales can be appropriate when the managers doing the performance appraisals don’t have a lot of training in the process.


A second approach is to use a blank sheet of paper and write down the key result areas, set major goals, and describe what good performance will look like. Make sure both of you are in agreement at the beginning, so that when you get to the end there can be no disagreement. Then, do regular check-ins throughout the year.


A third approach is for both of you to prepare a rough draft of the employee’s performance appraisal, meet to compare the two, and work together to write a final draft. Give the employee two weeks’ notice to prepare it. Say, “Let’s each prepare rough drafts of your performance appraisal and then we’ll sit down and look at the similarities and differences.”


If there is disagreement, work on the agreements first and then go back to the disagreements. Make it okay for the employee to think about where he or she is and then communicate it to you. This process takes you out of the judge and jury role and makes it more of a two-way dialogue.


A fourth approach is the “three-column” process. In the first column, list what the employee said he or she was going to do. In the second column, list what the employe&actually did. In the third column, describe the gap between the first two and explain what caused it or what helped the employee if his or her goals were exceeded.


Performance appraisal is not about whether employees are good or bad; it’s about whether they are doing what needs to be done. Remember to appraise the performance, not the person. Appraise the behavior, not the personality.


For example, saying someone has a bad attitude is not performance appraisal. “Bad attitude” is not specific or measurable. The employee doesn’t know what it means. It puts the person on the defensive instead of allowing openness in dealing with the performance.



Instead, point out specific behaviors that lead you to make the judgment of “bad attitude.” Perhaps the employee is rude and offensive to others or uses inappropriate language. Those are specific behaviors that the employee can understand and do something about.


Be very clear about the difference between standards and goals. Standards are the bare minimum which everyone is required to produce. If people fall below standard, you have a problem. Goals are more flexible and negotiable; standards are not negotiable.


A performance appraisal should take approximately one hour. Conduct it in a place where you can sit side by side with the employee. Don’t sit behind your desk. Do it in privacy where others can’t see you and you won’t be disturbed. Turn off your phone and don’t allow any interruptions.


If people show up who haven’t done their parts, don’t go through with their sessions. Impress upon them how important their roles are, ask them to do it within the next few days, and reschedule new times to meet. If they continue to not do it, then you need to have a discussion about that issue. Ask, “What is getting in the way of your doing this?” and go from there.




To get someone to change a specific behavior, use the following verbal process:


  • When you… (state the specific behavior)


  • It makes me think that… (state the perceived attitude)


  • This is important because… (state the reason)


  • I feel.. (state how you feel in one word)


  • What I want you to do now is… (state the desired action)


This is a fairly cut-and-dried process. You can leave the emotion in or take it out; it’s your choice.


The “360’s technique” can be used to change behavior when you have a group of people who are very skilled at giving each other feedback and things are going well. Otherwise it turns into a kind of kangaroo court and all sorts of vendettas come to the surface.

To successfully use 360’s, you must have an environment where:


  • Open communication is the norm
  • You can deal with issues
  • People are used to working out their interpersonal issues and differences


When you are in agreement with someone and have written down the intended results, but then he or she goes away and does something else, have the person (in writing):


  • Describe what the project will look like when it is finished
  • List steps he or she will take to make it happen
  • List regular check-in dates to update you on progress
  • Describe what will happen as a result of these actions Then ask the person:
  • Do you have everything you need to make this happen?
  • Do you know how to do everything required to make it happen?
  • Are there any obstacles that might get in your way?



To finish the workshop, Segal reviews and critiques various performance appraisal forms that members are currently using. General advice from this section includes:


  • Performance appraisal forms should reflect what was and what will be.
  • People may do well in one area but need help in another. Use forms that allow the most flexibility instead of lumping behaviors into a small number of categories.
  • Separate the discipline process from the performance appraisal process. Things like showing up on time for work are not negotiable. If people break the rules or aren’t meeting expectations, discipline them but keep it separate from their actual job performance


TEC – Taking the Pain Out of Performance Appraisal – Judith Segal